Harriet Robinson

For leading HIV vaccine research

The problem is invisible. The solution is expressed in a symbology that few laypeople can decipher. And despite more than a decade of development, any substantive sign of that solution’s effect on humanity is still, at best, years away. But in terms of impact, it doesn’t get much bigger, clearer, and more immediate than the prospect of a successful HIV vaccine.

Atlanta is at the center of the worldwide war against AIDS, which has killed more than half a million Americans since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first reported on it thirty years ago. For ten years, microbiologist Harriet Robinson and her team at Smyrna-based GeoVax have been taking advantage of the city’s unique combination of resources—Emory University’s Vaccine Center, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and the nearby CDC—to cultivate a vaccine that not only prevents but also combats HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS.

Since Robinson started her AIDS research as a professor at the University of Massachusetts in 1992, attempts at an HIV inoculation have come and gone, with four vaccines going as far as the third and final phase of efficacy testing through the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Two of the four attempts failed, and one is still being tested. Robinson’s vaccine is expected to be the fifth to graduate to efficacy trials, and it differs from its predecessors by using a human protein that, along with viral proteins, increases the body’s production of T-cells—white blood cells able to recognize, attack, and, hopefully, kill the virus—as well as antibodies that can block HIV.

In 2009 primates at the Yerkes research facility were vaccinated before being exposed to SIV—Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, the closest known cousin to HIV. A group of rhesus macaque monkeys was injected with the vaccine and then exposed to the virus in three twelve-week trials. The results were staggering. After the first twelve-week period, 70 percent of the subjects remained uninfected. After the second period, that number shot to 80 percent of the same group. Only after Robinson introduced a more potent strain of SIV during the third period did 100 percent of the primates become infected.

As Robinson and her team enter the third phase of trials, the biggest hurdle may be funding the research and production of the vaccine—the third trial alone is projected to cost $80 million. However, Robinson says a patient with HIV/AIDS will spend $500,000 in lifetime medical costs. With more than a million Americans living with HIV—and almost 50,000 newly infected every year—the math in support of research adds up.

While the worldwide implications of a successful vaccine are obvious, the local impact can’t be ignored. After all, the AIDS epidemic is growing faster in the Southeast than in any other region in the country.

If successful, the vaccine will bring Atlanta high-profile attention and draw researchers to the city. That’s good news to Robinson, but her focus remains on the fight against the virus. The current formula is geared toward the clade B strain of HIV, which is prevalent in the United States. Meanwhile GeoVax researchers are starting to apply what they’ve learned to treat clade C, the strain that has infected more than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone. “A vaccine is possible,” she says, knocking on her mahogany conference table. “We’re still years away. But I think we’re going to have one before people think we are.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.